Oxford English Dictionary

Cover of the Compact Oxford English Dictionary. OED researchers are trying to track down the origins of "revirginize." (Oxford University Press, Inc / Oxford University Press, Inc / November 23, 2010)

Here ye, all you secret lovers of 19th century pornography. The august and decidedly non-pornographic Oxford English Dictionary needs your assistance.

As the Guardian reports, the search began when one of the OED’s teams of researchers began working on the dictionary’s entry for “revirginize.” It's a verb whose earliest reference is in a very hard-to-find, quite possibly underground work of erotica published in 1852. Said book, titled “The Meanderings of Memory,” was written by an author who went by the handle of “Nightlark.”

In all, some 51 OED definitions contain quotations from “The Meanderings of Memory,” including the noun “couchward,” (I have no idea what that means) and the much more mainstream verb "extemporize" and the noun “lump” and the adjective "fringy.”

The OED’s usually unflappable chief bibliographer Veronica Hurst thought she’d be able to track down “The Meanderings of Memory” in about 10 minutes using several online search tools.

"That turned into half an hour, and I was no further along the line to solving it. I looked on Google Books, in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. In short, I looked everywhere I could think of and couldn't come up with anything," Hurst told the Guardian. "We're not usually completely floored, but this time we're stumped."

As a result, the OED has issued a public call for help finding the book in question.

"It really has captured people's imaginations," Hurst said. "One theory is that it could be pornographic, or in some ways a clandestine publication that didn't get recorded in the normal way…”

Since issuing its appeal last week, a member of the public has turned up a reference to the book in an old Sotheby’s catalogue, leading Hurst to hypothesize that it may be a small book of poetry about five to 10 pages long. And, given the quotations from the book in several OED entries, it appears to be a rather “flowery” book of poetry, she said.

hector.tobar@latimes.com

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